Our route

Here's our planned route - contacts/advice for all destinations welcome! Or why not come & meet us somewhere ;-)

Feb/March - Ukraine to Istanbul, via Moldova (& Transnitria)/Romania/Serbia/Bulgaria (Lisa); south France to Istanbul, via Slovenia/Italy/Greece (Chris)
April - Istanbul, Jordan & Israel
late April/May - north India to Nepal, overland
June/July - Hong Kong, Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam (Hanoi)/South Korea/Japan
August - Hawaii & California
September/October - central America - Panama to Guatemala, overland
late October - arrive in Canada (Uxbridge, ON)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Canadian National Exhibition - let's go to The Ex!

We had such a good time at the CNE (also known as "The Ex") yesterday that it was worth dusting off the blog to write about it!

We were volunteering to represent Uxbridge - although our booth turned out to be focused on the York Durham Heritage Railway, so we were a bit out of our depth - for a 1/2 day.  We decided to take the early shift and to travel down by bus so that we could make the most of what the CNE has to offer.

The 6 hours spent in our booth went very quickly, particularly thanks to the challenges of caring for our loaner plants and model train; the latter had a tendency to be derailed by little hands when you turned away for a millisecond.  We met all kinds of interesting people including our co-volunteer Paul, who is the "souvenir vendor" on our popular tourist train (over 10,000 riders last summer!).

Once our shift was over we wandered past our neighbouring rock-balancing booth (very talented guy!) to check out the competitive vegetables and flowers (theme of the day - chrysanthemums and dahlias).  The giant leeks were particularly impressive, as were the prolific squashes from one contributor.

The rest of our building (Direct Energy Center) was quite shopping-oriented, but we are not in the market for a hot tub or a giant TV so we just enjoyed some great samples from Mountainoak Cheese, bought a couple of Game of Thrones-themed t-shirts, and hightailed it to outdoors to check out all the weird and wonderful things out there - such as deep-fried butter!

We had some free samples of Iƶgo (fig & date probiotic - getting our stomachs ready for the assault ahead), sat in some fun chairs painted by students, chatted to the guy doing 3-D photography, ogled the army guys in uniform (Lisa) and marvelled at all the things one could see and do - with an inexhaustible supply of cash, that is.  There were tons of rides, midway games, mix-your-own slushies, poutine variants....the list could go on and on.  We were satisfied just to people-watch and sip on a delicious frozen hot chocolate.

We found ourselves at a building labelled Arts & Crafts, which turned out to be the highlight of our day.  There were lots of vendors (one of the complaints about the modern-day CNE) but also some interesting displays about superstitions, bridesmaid dresses, and a few other bits.  The origami skyline of Toronto was incredible, especially the large buildings such as City Hall.  And we found a new game - uPSet - which the inventor himself taught us how to play!  It was a tight game but Chris won (beginner's luck?) and we were sold on the idea - we bought a signed copy of the game for the family to enjoy at our Thanksgiving &
Christmas get-togethers.

We finally made our way out of Arts & Crafts towards the bandshell, where Theory of a Deadman were playing to a small but enthusiastic crowd.  We arrived just in time for a song entitled "The Bitch Came Back" and were amused to see some young fans dancing with their parents to what were definitely not PG-rated lyrics.

We made our way past the Ribfest booths (selling all manner of carnivorous delights) to the beer garden, where Lisa perched on the back of some garden furniture while we sipped some hard-earned beverages.  Our enjoyment of the band and the atmosphere was somewhat subdued by the conflict between some seated patrons vs some new arrivals.  Unfortunately for the latter they had done very well at the midway and their collection of giant stuffed animals was accused of blocking the view of the seated fans.  Frankly, if you're that much of a fan then you should probably be standing, dancing, and generally jumping around well above the stuffed animal sightline...but we stayed out of it  ;-)

Bacon, ice cream, chilli peppers,
Nutella - in a cone, of course...?
After 30 minutes or so we decided it was high time to hit the famous Food Building to check out the offerings for dinner.  Although it certainly resembled a large-scale version of a shopping mall food court, there were some special attractions that made it worthwhile to fully circumnavigate the building.  A few of the highlights have been captured in the photos below:

It was a tough decision but Lisa settled on a pulled pork and perogy sandwich (on a delicious pretzel bun) and Chris enjoyed two Lebanese pita sandwiches - halloumi & tomato and marinated turkey.  We finished off our meal with a very dark and roasty coffee from Hula Girl.  If only we had second - and possibly third - stomachs there are so many more things we would have liked to try!  Although we're not sure we're keen on the bacon & Nutella focus of many booths...a bit weird...?

Exhausted, we made our way to the GO train station attached to the Ex and scooted along one stop to Union Station.  Too bad it was an hour and a half until the next bus to Uxbridge - but it could've been worse, as this was the last bus of the day and we didn't fancy an unplanned overnight stopover in the GO bus station!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Top 10 travel items: learning from experience

Somewhere in Guatemala (probably while waiting for a bus!), we took some time to debate our “top ten” backpacking essentials. Now that the trip was nearly finished we felt enough like experts to actually nominate some items for packing lists....

In no particular order, here is what we came up with:

1. Source of light. We couldn't agree whether the headtorch or the camping lantern was the better option – both have their advantages & disadvantages – but we were certainly grateful for the ability to light our way...especially in Nepal where electricity is so unreliable. Something with AA batteries is probably best as you seem to be able to get these everywhere.

2. Power Monkey (solar charger). Probably not for the reasons you're thinking. Yes, the solar panel was handy for charging our phones in Nepal, but what made the Power Monkey indispensable was the selection of connectors. We became experts at configuring these so we could charge just about anything whenever we encountered an electrical outlet...for example, mini USB – USB output - USB input - American plug was perfect for the camera ;-) This gadget allowed us to toss out many of our item-specific chargers.

3. Malarone (malaria medication). Yes, it was terrifically expensive (more than GBP 2 per tablet, and that's after some serious bargain-hunting). But we passed in and out of a LOT of malaria regions and these meds made it simple to protect ourselves. Since it's new, there are no known resistant strains which means we could feel equally well protected in Thailand or in Guatemala. Starting the cycle 1-2 days before arrival in a malaria zone, and ending it one week after departure (instead of one week/one month respectively as it is with most malaria meds) meant that our bodies got a break from medication on a regular basis. And don't bother to give that old advice “it's better to avoid being bitten” unless you have personally encountered a Panamanian cloudforest mosquito...an insect who can easily drill right through denim. Did we mention that Malarone doesn't have any side effects either?

4. Silk sleep sheets. Picked up for a bargain at the market in Vietnam (2 for about US$ 18). Lightweight, incredibly compact and so comfortable to sleep in. We're not sure how this works but the mosquitoes didn't seem to bite through them – so, with the addition of Lisa's comedic mosquito-net jacket, these completely replaced the need for a mosquito net and made sleeping in hammocks a viable option.

5. Bug repellent & sunscreen combi spray. Vital for central America and Thailand, where there are dengue fever-carrying mozzies who are active during the day – and the sun is wicked. We found this in camping shops in London and San Diego, but it was difficult to find in foreign cities – so stock up in advance!

6. Pop-up sunhat. It looked ridiculous when it arrived in the post in London in January, but this was by far Lisa's favourite must-have item. It provided more than enough shade for face, neck and chest when in use, and folded into the back pocket of the daypack when she didn't need it. Plus, with it's handpainted butterfly decoration, it was immensely popular with tourist and locals alike! We must find a way to get a shipment of these to the lovely ladies at the Angkor Wat stalls....

7. Prescription sunglasses. Another item that looked positively goofy when received during a British winter. But what would we have done without these in the glaring sun of Nepal, Thailand, central America....and Kiev? Snow can reflect the sunshine just as well as a white beach can!

8. Kindle. We were a bit worried about our gadgets making us a target for robbers. But, at least in most cities, electronics are so ubiquitous that ours were hardly noticeable. (The one time we were definitely noticed was on a bus in Costa Rica – but the guys quickly lost interest when it transpired that we didn't have any Spanish books!) We carried novels, guidebooks, translation guides, religious texts...huge amounts of information in a tiny package. And it might actually have been less obvious that we were tourists when people couldn't tell that we were reading the Lonely Planet. But the maps are useless ;-)

9. Inflatable pillow. Yep, the kind you blow up and wrap around your neck during a long flight. Who would've guessed that this would also be handy for camping...oh yeah, and for Nepal, where pillows (and mattresses!) are few and far between. The blow-up pillow was actually so comfy (and reliably bug-free) that it was used in favour of many hotel & hostel pillows along the way. And of course it was great for overnight bus trips as well as our many flights. The plushy fleece neck pillow was way too bulky – it never made it out of Kiev!

10. Camping stove & utensils. Our old Camping Gaz stove didn't prove to be very useful (the fuel is too hard to find outside of Europe/North America), but the Primus-compatible one we picked up in Nepal saw a lot of action. We could boil our own water (much better than using iodine), make dinner with the weird items we picked up at the market, have a cup of coffee whenever we wanted to, and generally just be self-sufficient. Our utensils were minimal – one large pot, a couple of bowls, and a travel coffee mug along with a couple of sporks & knives should be all you need. Doesn't take up much space and weighs practically nothing!

An important special mention...Kudos to Osprey for designing a pack which is not only really comfortable, but includes a lot of clever features. We would never go back to a top-loading pack after enjoying the access provided by this front-loading style; also, one of our must-have features is straps that zip away for flights & bus trips. Lisa's Osprey had one unique feature that flummoxed airport security the world over – and made her feel much more confident when strolling around strange cities – the zipper for the daypack is on the back, only accessible when it's not being worn.

It is probably obvious that any backpacker also needs the following: camping towel; flip flops; hiking boots; umbrella. Clothing advice is tougher – especially when encountering a lot of different cultures & religions – but a few very useful bits were: zip-off pants (instantly converting to temple-friendly attire); a thin but warm sweater (Lisa's old cotton one from H&M is still going strong); a pashmina (head cover, beach cover-up, modesty shawl, curtain....the uses were endless); and maybe the magic wrap Lisa picked up in Hawai'i. The latter was almost as useful as the pashmina but also provided a rare opportunity to feel dressed-up, which came in handy when meeting up with ex-colleagues in central America. Whether a raincoat is useful enough to warrant it's bulkiness is still up for debate! But we can categorically say that if you want one, bring it with you - when Lisa left hers on the bus in Costa Rica, she found it challenging to replace...they are pretty much unheard of there! 

For contrast, here's our list of dead weight:

a. Water filter. While we used water purifying tablets and iodine to kill bugs in drinking water we rarely used the filter. We initially thought this would be a way to make water super-safe by removing bacteria but, as we were backpacking, you couldn't filter then carry very much at a time and often bottled water seemed an easier solution when in a town.  The filter IS great if you have access to lakes & rivers.

b. Mosquito net. This is generally provided by your hotel/hostel/host if needed...and if it's not, good luck finding a way to hang up your own. See point 4 above for our preferred alternative.  Probably most useful as a mattress cover in dodgy hotels/hostels - or at least, Lisa didn't suffer from bedbug bites when she used it this way  =)

c. Tent. In retrospect, we did not travel in a way that required a tent. Much of our journeying was centred around accommodation in towns or hostels and, although we used the tent twice, this didn't justify the extra space in our bags.  However, travellers spending a long time in South Korea and/or Japan will find that this is an excellent way to save on expensive accommodation.

d. Sleeping bags. See 'Tent' above. These two things went hand in hand and the climate we travelled through was too warm for sleeping bags; we ended up investing in the sleep sheets featured as item 4.

e. Rain cover for backpack. When it rains in the tropics, it REALLY rains and this cover wasn't adequate protection. It also made it awkward for the "bus boy" to grab our backpacks & throw them on/off the top of the bus. And during an impressive deluge experienced while in a bus (with the packs riding on top, of course), the raincover blew off Chris' pack in the high winds, leaving it to get soaked. It would have been much smarter to use drybags or bin liners INSIDE the pack to protect our belongings.

f. DEET. We tried it all, from 15% to 99%. The latter destroyed watch straps and the lining of raincoats...but we didn't actually notice any difference in the amount of mosquito bites experienced. Obviously everyone's body chemistry is different (and undoubtedly certain products are more/less repellent to certain types of mosquitoes), but frankly we'd rather use a natural product such as citronella instead of such harsh chemicals. The same goes for our Permethrin clothing spray (although it did reduce the population of flies outside our sister's house in San Diego!).

g. Face wash/laundry soap. A bar of mild soap covers both of these requirements and will not explode all over your pack.  And this is from a woman with dry, sensitive skin - which never looked & felt healthier than it did at the end of this trip!

Of course, everyone's trip is different - but maybe our experience & opinions will help others to decide what's worth hauling around on their own long journey!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gentlemen, the Queen ...

Despite our shared heritage, it's been a bit of mild culture shock settling into life in Canada. One difference I've noticed centred around Remembrance Day. My father-in-law, Jack, is involved with the local Royal Canadian Legion so we're quite aware of veterans' affairs in our house. But there is also a wide and deep appreciation of the sacrifices, past and present, of Canada's armed forces; more so than I usually feel back in London. Now, this could be due to being in a small town now where Remembrance Day events are more noticeable but I think that there is a greater respect all-round here.

Cenotaph outside Uxbridge library
It hit me with some force when Lisa, Jack and myself attended a Remembrance dinner at the Legion. During this social and solemn event, not only did Jack deliver a powerful rendition of the poem 'In Flanders' Fields' but we toasted the Queen and ended singing 'God Save the Queen'. It struck me that I couldn't remember the last time I'd done either of these things at home.

Are we sometimes embarrassed by national feeling in the UK, or see it as no longer relevant? What I experienced in Uxbridge was not any kind of jingoistic nationalism but more a sense of community and duty. It was humbling and hopeful, and those pipes always bring a tear to my eye ...

The pipe band on Brock St.

Crowds at the cenotaph

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Settling in....

(Lisa's post....while Chris is interviewing at the employment agency!)

Oh dear.  Last published post was on 8 October....

Bye bye volcanoes
Oooh...nearly asked if we could get off here!
Florida = one big swamp
We arrived in Canada on 24 October.  Dad picked us up at the airport at midnight - easy to spot as always, with his cowboy hat! - and took us on a late-night drive through some of the neighbourhoods between there and home.  We squeezed in a stop at Tim Hortons (of course) at about 2:30am - quite amazing how many people were there at that hour!

Since then we've been settling into Uxbridge...well, at least as settled as we can get while wedged into Mom & Dad's spare room!  We've attended a host of local events including a pie auction (bought 3 pies hee hee); a winter coat sale (two coats apiece, plus hats & scarves & gloves - total spend $20, perfect for unemployed ex-backpackers!); and a Remembrance Day dinner (beef, argh, but otherwise delicious).  We've also been doing lots of paperwork which actually seems to be more straightforward for Chris than it is for me.  Canadian friends & followers, did you know that our SIN numbers become "dormant" if unused for more than 5 years?  And that you must present your original birth certificate in order to re-activate the darned thing?  Whereas Chris just had to show his passport and immigration documents, and he was issued with a new SIN that he could use immediately.  We sure feel sorry for anyone without a car though, because we had to go to several different towns to get everything sorted.

We've also had some fairly amusing issues with Mom & Dad's address, which is a post office box.  Many government departments won't accept this as our address, so we've "invented" an address which is a hybrid of the street address with the post office postal code.  This will probably result in some kind of mail limbo for all our most important paperwork.  It also prevented us from getting a great deal on a mobile (cell) phone because the address check failed in their system (who knows what it was checking the address against...no combination of our street & P.O. box addresses would work!).  However, we did manage to get a phone directly from Virgin by paying a $100 security deposit, which will be refunded if we manage to resist doing a runner over the next 6 months.

It took us a long time to decide what phone company to use because cell phone costs are really different here.  Unlike the UK, there are no special "mobile" phone numbers; instead, you get a number which corresponds to your local area, and call charges are based on whether the caller is local or long distance when they call you.  So if you take your Toronto phone to Ottawa, and your friend calls you from Toronto, they pay long distance charges without even realising it.  Also, BOTH parties pay for the call (or the minutes are deducted from your account, if you still have some available for that month).  At least, we think that's how it works....nice, eh?  Voicemail is almost always an add-on "extra", as are sending & receiving text messages.  In the end we went with Virgin because they only charge $5 for voicemail (with a limit of 10 messages argh), have free unlimited (international!) texts in the $25 contract, and don't have any long distance charges within Canada.

Bank accounts are similarly bizarre, with monthly fees as well as "per transaction" fees.  We were thinking of just keeping our money in an old sock until we found out that Chris could get a special "new immigrant" bank account which is fee-free for a year.  I did manage to "wake up" my old account but we've decided to keep it as a (not very active) savings account to avoid any fees for now.

Lake Simcoe
But before you start thinking "why would anyone move to such a crazy place", I have to say that the unlimited fresh air and wide open skies are just as I remember them.  It's soooo nice to travel around the local countryside and lakes, just admiring the rolling farmland in the late autumn sunshine!  And we're having a great time reuniting with old friends & lots of family.  It's going to be amazing to spend Christmas with everyone - even Susan and Larry (sister & brother-in-law) are coming up from California!  We'll miss the Streets & Solway gangs of course, but they'll be sunning themselves in Oman so I'm sure they'll be fine without us  ;-)

We've been chatting to lots of people on Skype which is great, but there are always lots of people we haven't spoken to in far too long.  We haven't forgotten any of you and we hope you will stay in touch!  You can reach us on chris.lisa_streets on Skype, or email us on we.are.the.streets*at*gmail.com.

<sales pitch alert> Local folks, you've probably noticed from my Facebook page that I've started a custom-made shamballa bracelet business in Uxbridge....please come & visit me at the Farmer's Market (inside at the Arena) on Sunday 25th November between 10am and 2pm.  In case you needed any further enticement, it's my birthday  ;-)  Also please spread the word to friends, family & colleagues!  The bracelets make great, highly personal Christmas gifts.  I can mail them anywhere in Canada for $5. <sales pitch over> It's been a lot of fun going to the small craft markets over the past 2 weekends, brings back memories of the My Secret Kitchen days....
See more shamballas on www.tinyurl.com/LisaBracelets
And for everyone - don't worry, we will add in the missing blog entries over the next few weeks.  It's our goal to have them all published by the end of the year!  So you will still have plenty of adventures to read about, plus a special post where we rate our gear (to help all of you who are planning similar adventures  ;-)  ).

Gotta run...need to track down the organiser of this Saturday's Santa Claus Parade in Uxbridge so I can volunteer!   Big hugs to everyone!!!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dodging the police - Honduras to Guatemala

We wake early - it's a long day of travel ahead, and we're worried about what problems our missing entrance stamps might cause at the Honduran border.  But we take a few minutes to walk back up to the seafront at Omoa, since we couldn't appreciate it properly after last night's post-sunset arrival.  We really like the bay - it's calm & quiet, with a few fishermen and a couple of swimmers.  There are some restaurants with decks built out over the water.  It's just like Thailand but without the hordes of tourists!  Of course, this is the off season, but we've heard that the lack of beach (and possibly the lack of waves as well) has discouraged tourism overall.  Funny, neither of these things bothers us!

We turn back towards town and start the 2km walk back to the highway.  We are keen to avoid a large fine at the border, and we reckon that the best way of doing this is to be carrying very little cash.  They can't take what we don't have...right?  Consequently we have just 30 lempira to spare for breakfast, so we share a baleada (L15) at a nice little cafe, in the company of a government employee and his girlfriend.  They try gamely to chat with us in Spanglish  =)

On our way to the bus stop we try to find some drinking yogurt at various different pulperias, but no joy.  This will turn out to be a good thing, since our bus journey won't go quite as we planned...

We don't have to wait too long for the bus to Corinto, and to our delight it's less than half full.  We head to the back and throw our backpacks behind the seat.  The conductor comes to collect our fare but doesn't want us to go all the way to Corinto with him...unfortunately, we can't work out quite what he DOES want us to do, but it definitely involves changing buses.  He's so earnest, and clearly intent on helping us, so we agree with his mysterious plan.  We check our remaining cash against his predicted fare for the 2nd bus, and it seems like we'll have L15 to spare...

We roll along for an hour or so, passing a dozen or more playa (beach) communities on our right, and rolling hills & farms on our left.  We make a rather weird backtrack through a riverside town - not an express bus, then.  We are even stopped by the navy (?!?), and Chris - along with all the other males - is searched.  Too bad there's no chance to get a photo of all the boys lined up like criminals against the side of the bus.  Our passports are inspected, and the other (local) passengers produce various bits of identification, except 3 teenage-looking girls who seem to be without ID.  They have an extended chat with the crowd of armed officers, but this might just be an excuse for some sly flirting - pretty much every officer looks to be under 25, and the girls are cute!  After a few minutes we are all allowed to re-board the bus and continue our journey.

Just after we pass through a small village called Tegucigulpita (hee hee), the conductor indicates that we should disembark.  This is kind of a relief because the bus is now empty except for us and one other passenger, so it's feeling a bit weird!  As we are getting off, the conductor flags a taxi (unbidden, of course).   Not surprisingly his L100 fare to the border is too steep for us, so we send him back on his way.  Next, the driver of one of the bevy of moto-taxis comes over and asks us if we are travelling to the frontera, and how much the bus costs for this trip.  We quote our previous conductor at about L50 for 2 people, which is clearly unappealing to the moto-taxi guy.  He bids us a good journey & indicates that we should sit in the shade, since it'll be 40 minutes until the next bus - doh!  The throng of moto-taxis drives off in various directions (rather reinforcing his point - clearly no buses are expected for a while) and leave us to curse and pull out the trusty deck of cards.

But Chris has barely shuffled when a bus appears on the horizon - thankfully emblazoned with the word Frontera!  We grab our gear and clamber aboard.  The backpacks end up at the very front of the bus near the door - not ideal for a border crossing, where we are often rushed by "helpful people" who'd like to guarantee our business by grabbing our stuff! - but there is an empty seat nearby so we just keep a watchful eye.  After all, we have no money to be parted with so it won't take much talking to reclaim our bags if necessary.

We needn't have worried.  Within 30 minutes we reach the border, and although a small shouty crowd appears around the bus, it transpires that they are all money-changers (you can tell because they're all yelling "cambio" (change) ).  With no money to change, we grab our bags and start the short walk to the border.  On the way, we spend our last L19 on a Gatorade (which is worth L21 - thanks to the nice gent in the shop who took pity on poor travellers).  We come over a tiny hill and spot the border station - which looks exactly like a bus station, weirdly - just ahead.  Hearts in throats, we head towards it.

It's not busy at all - just 4 people in a single line - but we're not sure if this is a help or a hindrance in our situation.  Within a couple of minutes of our arrival, a very American-sounding immigration officer asks us to come to her newly-opened window to be processed.  But another fellow jumps in ahead of us, so we end up with the Spanish-only officer.  He looks through our passports but they fail to yield the narrow white form that one usually completes when entering Honduras.  Of course, we remembered this form from our border crossing between Nicaragua & Honduras...but failed to work out that it's absence would make it impossible for immigration to "not notice" our missing entry stamps from the El Salvador crossing.  After some rapid conversation with the female officer (who directs a few questions at us), it appears that we do indeed have a problem.  It's left to the woman to explain the situation to us.

Basically, we are now considered to be illegal immigrants and this means we need to pay a fine of over L3000 each (that's more than US$ 300 for the pair of us).  One of the American teachers we met at D&D had warned us that this happened to him once, but it's still a shock to be asked for such a huge sum of money over what seems like such a small thing!    Our faces must say it all...but just in case, we tell them that we simply don't have that kind of money.  We're also told that we can return to our point of entry to sort it out - but that's many miles away now, and of course they have no record of us so we can't imagine that it would be successful.

They confer, and the woman asks us if we intend to return to Honduras.  Upon hearing that we don't, she says that there may be another option which will cost only US$ 20 each, and requires a phone call to get approval from a higher authority.  Chris pulls out his wallet and shows them our US$ 23.  They don't look happy, and the woman heads back to her own window to process a few more people who've arrived while we've been talking.  The man fusses around for a while with our passports and some paperwork that looks totally unrelated to us, then waves us over to one side with a "wait, please".

We stand in the middle of the immigration building - in the bit that looks like a bus concourse - and worry about what will happen next.  We hope that the fellow is calling the right people to give us the $20 "special deal" - although we don't know how we'll actually pay for this, as our "emergency fund" (intended to get us to Guatemalan immigration, which is some distance away) is only another $10.  But it's also possible that he's calling the police and the next step will be arrest & prison.  The longer we wait, the more we think it will be the latter, and we really begin to understand how intimidation works.  If they offered us the chance to pay the L6000 in fines in order to avoid jail right now, we'd probably jump on the opportunity!  But instead, the female officer appears - seemingly on her way to have a break - and says that her colleague has been looking for us.  She leads us to a side door of the "office" portion of the building and ushers us inside.  She says we can "have a discussion" when she gets back...this sounds ominous, so in spite of the air conditioning we are still sweating profusely.

There are now 2 male officers at work in the building and we watch them fire questions at incoming & outgoing people.  Every once in a while, they look at us and/or our passports (which are sitting on their desk) and mutter something to each other.  They are unfailingly polite to us, however, and keep telling us to "wait please".  We've now been waiting for an hour or so and we still don't know what the final solution might be.

Suddenly, the officer we've been dealing with says "OK".  He grabs our passports and returns them, opens the door, and waves us towards the border, stating "Guatemala is there".  This seems too good to be true and we joke nervously about running across border just in case.  But it's all OK suddenly, although we'll never know what brought about his change of heart!  Was it our lousy Spanish that didn't allow him to tell us off eloquently; did he feel sorry for us because we had only $23 to our names; could he not be bothered with all the procedures (and undoubtedly paperwork) that come with treating people as criminals; or is the whole thing a set-up to scare people into producing all the money they've hidden in their socks & bras in order to pay the large fine?

So, now we are in Guatemala but still worried that their immigration will object to our missing Honduran stamps - we recall the officer at Sixaola who made us go back to Panama to change our date stamp - and to compound this, the Guatemalan immigration office is several km away.  We approach the waiting minivan whose conductor wants to know if we are going to Puerto Barrios, but we just keep reiterating that we want to go to Guatemalan immigration.  He's undoubtedly wondering why we are so obsessed with this!

He manages to stuff our bags under the back seat of the minibus, and installs us in the front seat next to the driver with the reasoning that it will make things faster at immigration.  We're the first on board so we have a while to let our heart rates slow down, and Chris takes the chance to exchange $20 for some Guatemalan quetzales via the ubiquitous money-changer so that we can pay our bus fare.  We're in luck that the next passenger is a Honduran-born, Guatemalan-dwelling, ex-New Yorker, so we find plenty to chat about while we're waiting for the van to fill up.

Before long we are underway, and we soon understand the reasoning for our front seat position.  We feel like royals as we luxuriate in our elbow room while more & more passengers pile into the van behind us.  It seems that there is no maximum capacity for these vans!

In about 15-20 minutes we arrive at Guatemalan immigration, which actually appears to be in the middle of nowhere.  We are escorted into the office by our conductor (who takes this opportunity to collect our fares - confusing!) and the immigration officer quickly stamps both passports with a 90-day allowance.  No questions, no stamp checks - phew!  We're herded back to the van and everyone piles on board again (they took advantage of the time to stretch their legs).  And....relax.

We're not sure if we'll go to Puerto Barrios, from where we can catch a boat to Livingstone and then another boat down the allegedly beautiful Rio Dulce; or whether to take the bus directly to Rio Dulce.  Amazingly it's only 12:30 so we decide that we have time for the longer route (and also we're sure to find an ATM in Puerto Barrios so that we can stop being so cash-poor).  It's probably another 30 minutes journey from the immigration office, but we're so relaxed now that Lisa dozes through most of it....

In Puerto Barrios there is a flock of taxi drivers, fixers, and other "helpful people".  We run away from them into an air-conditioned, frosted glass, lockable ATM room attached to the Banco Internacionales.  With a crisp Q1000 in hand, we head off to find the port so we can hire a lancha (water taxi) to Livingstone.  Plenty of people give us "directions" (which all seem to involve getting a taxi or other form of paid transport) so we eventually ask for some unbiased info from the guard at the Chiquita shipping facility.  Not only do we find the Livingstone boats, but also those heading for Belize....tempting!

Unfortunately our kindly captain-to-be, a distinctly Caribbean fellow with only 2 teeth, informs us that there are no afternoon boats from Livingstone to Rio Dulce town.  This seems weird as we've read that there are regular boats upriver from Puerto Barrios, so where on earth do they go when they get to Livingstone?  In this case, we decide that we should get the bus, because we don't want to waste a night in Livingstone & thereby reduce our time in Rio Dulce or points further.  So we walk back down towards the market/bus station, but take the time to stop for lunch at a tiny roadside place, where one of the options is just an unspecified "almuerzos" (lunch).  Turns out to be a tasty chicken & rice dish with some mysterious (but good) sauce.

We stop into the posh-looking Liteguat bus station to use their bathrooms  ;-)  While waiting for Chris, Lisa is amused (or scared?) by the giant ad for bus traveller's insurance.  For just Q3 you receive:

  • Life insurance, in case of death caused by accident or aggression
  • Medical coverage, in case of injury caused by accident or aggression
  • Personal belongings cover in case of theft
This doesn't seem like a reassuring advertisement for the bus service....

Bladders emptied, we emerge from the bus station to search for the local (economy) bus to Rio Dulce.  Of course, a fixer materialises beside us and insists that he'll arrange a minibus trip for us - as a taxi driver, he apparently knows all the minibus drivers and will ensure we get the right price.  Uh-huh....It takes us some time to escape from him but as we wander around the side streets, we realise that he was indicating the right area to find a minibus, so we have to return to his helpful clutches and he quickly sets us up with an empty vehicle.  We settle in to wait for more passengers.

The bus doesn't take too long to fill up and we're soon packed in like sardines. We hit the road to Morales.  As we leave Puerto Barrios, Lisa spots a shop called "Bombaza" which literally appears to have had an explosion of clothing boxes all across the frontage - people are wading through piles of clothes to find desirable bargains.  Makes Primark look like a luxury department store!

When we arrive in Morales (which looks like it's just an interchange on the highway, we must change to a different bus to reach Rio Dulce.  It's been a long day already and the 30-minute wait drags on forever.  But eventually a minibus arrives and we manage to complete our journey.

We weren't sure if we'd make it to Rio Dulce so we haven't arranged any accommodation - with sunset imminent, this is our top priority.  There is a new-looking hotel next to the bus stop where we check out a clean but boring room for Q120 (US$ 15).  It's tempting to just take it so we can fully relax after today's dramas, but we can't stop thinking about an intriguing place mentioned in our Rough Guide - Casa Perico, located in a small cove and only accessible by riverboat.  We stop in at the Sun Dog Cafe on the waterfront to ask them about arranging transport - which turns out to be free on arrival & departure - and while we're waiting, we're joined by a French traveller who is also bound for Perico.

Our river taxi arrives in due course and we whizz up the river to the lodge.  It's a winner at first glance, with a lovely large deck surrounding a bar/restaurant area, and lots of wooden walkways to the various rooms & dorms.  We are taken on a tour with our French companion, and we decide to treat ourselves to a double room in the roof space above the bar (about Q120, if we remember correctly!).  Our new friend opts for a hammock under the roof which is the cheapest option.  We'll be very glad of these choices when the heavens open while we are having dinner - except for a quick walkway dash to the communal bathroom, we can stay under cover!  And, Lisa is very excited to spot a tiny turtle swimming in the shallow water near the bathroom =)

FINALLY, we can relax with a local beverage - Guatemalan stout (!) for Lisa, and a chocolate shake for Chris (who is alcohol-free while some medication kills off evil stomach bacteria  ;-)  ).  This is certainly not a day we'd want to live over again!

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the buses...El Salvador

There are several factors to consider when trying to determine how long your bus ride will take in El Salvador. But first and foremost, you need to know that your mother would NOT approve of you taking these buses at all – they seemingly undergo no maintenance or inspections; there is a distinct lack of safety equipment; they are often dangerously overcrowded (3 or 4 people jammed into a 2-child seat, and more people crammed into the aisles); and they go haring around corners with the doors wide open. Sometimes they don't even come to a full stop as you are getting off or on.

But if you're willing to overlook these factors and travel like a Salvadorian, here are a few tips to help you determine your arrival time at destination:
  1. Speed. Most Salvadorian bus drivers have lead feet. Even around corners, through villages, and in the pouring rain. If you happen to have one of the few sedate drivers, you'll find yourself twitching with impatience that the journey is taking so much longer than normal.
  2. Frequency of stops. There is not really any such thing as an express service, as far as we can tell – if there's an inch of space available, and someone is at the stop, then the driver will screech to a halt. BUT, unlike in most central American countries, there are actually designated bus stops (NOT necessarily where the “parada de autobus” sign is – go to where the crowd of people are waiting!) so the number of possible stops is limited. Occasionally the driver goes so quickly that he never stops to let people board, and you're lucky if you manage to get him to stop to let you off (great news if you're going to the end of the route...you're going to get there SO fast!).
  3. Duration of stops. On our first bus ride in El Salvador, we were pleased that the bus departed almost immediately after we boarded – it wasn't even full yet, which is the trigger for departure time that we've come to know & love. But after travelling for about 5 minutes, we stopped at a parada....and were there for almost 30 minutes. A further 30 minutes down the road and we stopped again...this time for 20 minutes. A journey that should have taken 2 hours ended up taking about 3...but at least we had lots of time to enjoy the antics of the bus vendors*.
  4. Frequency of service. Popular routes such as the 301 between San Miguel & San Salvador will leave when the bus is full, or at worst every 15 minutes. Whereas the direct service from San Salvador to Alegria travels exactly twice a day. And remember that pretty much every service stops at dusk, so final departures (depending on distance) will be in mid- to late afternoon.

*Bus vendors will climb aboard at many of the bus stops, and attempt to sell you everything from toothbrushes to tacos. We have been grateful for these on long trips since there are no “passenger rest stops” in El Salvador, so it gives us a chance to buy a cold drink without disembarking and running the risk of being left behind. We've even been known to buy the occasional food item...although this could explain the “Salvadorian belly syndrome” we're currently experiencing....
Our nomination for “most talented” bus vendor is a fellow who was selling individually-wrapped hard candies in 3 flavours. He had a great patter and boy, could he roll those R's. We really believed that our bocas (mouths) would feel refreshed after having one of his chocolate-mint sweeties!
But the winner for “most unique product” AND sales pitch has to be “back-scratcher man”. He was certainly committed to his cause. He managed to talk about that (rather tacky) plastic back-scratcher for no less than 5 minutes straight – and then, he went down the entire bus scratching backs as a demo! Not sure if he got any sales but he did inspire a lot of giggles.

Other things to look forward to on your Salvadorian bus journey are:
  • seat hardness: from school-bus leather benches to upholstered individual seats – but you'd be amazed at which of these is often the more comfortable.
  • music: not just the driver's choice but also your fellow passengers – think our record is 4 different tunes playing simultaneously and loudly! Chris de Burgh & Brian Adams are bus driver favourites.
  • conductor noise: is he shouty? Does he whistle shrilly at every opportunity? FYI - “visa” means “wait” (an instruction for the driver, when passengers are getting on & off) and “aller” means “GO”. Watch the conductor take a running leap & swing himself on board via the back door.
  • climate: does the bus have air con? If so, is it actually on? 'cause if it's not, that bus is one hot & stuffy box with unopenable windows...
  • luggage: or better described as baskets, bundles of wood, and the occasional live chicken. If you're carrying a large backpack or similar, be prepared to spend the journey hugging it in your lap. If you're standing and trying to carry something, it's likely that a kindly seated passenger will hold onto your stuff so you can hold on to the ceiling rail with both hands! Feel free to do the same for others, it's a good way to make new Salvadorian friends.
Finally, you'll be pleased to learn that Salvadorian buses have route numbers. This is a good inspiration to bone up on your Spanish numbers, so that helpful locals can tell you which bus to catch to your destination. Many places of interest will require a couple of changes (and even where there's a direct bus, a “bus combo” might be a lot quicker – see point 4 above!) and there's no such thing as a route map or timetable, so you're going to need some advice! The numbering system also helps you to recognise your bus quickly enough to (possibly) flag it down before it flies past your stop.

So, now you're all set. Enjoy your journey, especially the sight of the beautiful countryside whipping by. Maybe manana (tomorrow) you can try one of those “people trucks” and REALLY travel like a Salvadorian...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another day, another border...

Our first day in Nicaragua is all about transport & negotiation. We leave Liberia on the 9:30am bus, headed for the border at Penas Blancas, but as we approach we are stuck in a long line of trucks. This line is so long and so immobile that some of the truck drivers are stretched out on hammocks slung under their trailers! But this isn't enough to dissuade our (kamikaze) bus driver – he drives on the wrong side of the road, and when it appears he might be foiled by oncoming traffic he simply drops off the edge of the road onto the grass verge. This is off-roading at it's best, and at such a slow speed that it's not heart attack-inducing...quite.

We make it safely to the border (closely shadowed by the international “Tica” bus which followed our lead down the road) and are immediately besieged by money changers, taxi drivers, and a host of others whose purpose is less clear. We have already changed our colone coins to cordobas at the bus station in Liberia (with an enterprising young man who operated next to the entrance door of all the “frontera” buses), but we decide to try our luck changing some of the paper money as well. Chris chooses his favourite money changer and waves a 10,000 colone bill at him...the guy seems to ask “how much do you want for it” so Chris asks for 400 cordobas. We've been working out rough costs in Costa Rica based on 500 colones = US$1 (also the exchange rate used by most establishments if you pay in US$, or if their price is in US$ but you pay in colones – weirdly the latter is more common); and we reckon the Nicaraguan exchange rate is about 20 cordobas to the dollar. The money changers don't try to barter so we're probably short-changing ourselves, but it's a relief to cross the border with some local currency in our pocket and we know that 400 cordobas will go a long way in Nicaragua!

Now there is nothing to do but wait in a line to enter the Costa Rican immigration office. Luckily, since our bus arrived first, we are near the front. Too bad for one of our fellow passengers who must've gone to the bathroom when we arrived, and is now stuck behind the passengers of the Tica bus and another bus! Everyone around us is filling in immigration forms that the Tica bus staff have doled out, and we wonder where to get these but reckon we'll wait until we get into the actual office. In due time (after rescuing the elderly, mothers with small children, and one particularly feisty young woman from the last stages of the line), the policeman at the door allows a few of us to file in. No sign of the immigration forms and the line is moving fast, so Lisa pops out to ask one of the ladies who crowd around arriving buses – she appears to have some blank forms in her hand. But not for us, apparently – she directs Lisa back to the policeman, who duly produces some blank forms from the large pocket on the front of his jacket (we thought he had bullet-proof padding in there!). We scribble in our details quickly, including the always tricky responses to “country of residence”; ”planned address”; and “departure/arrival country”. The latter seemed obvious to us (which country were you last in, and where do you plan to go when you leave the current country), but we were strongly corrected at the Costa Rican entry point where the responses were rewritten as “Costa Rica” for both! You can stay, but you can never leave....

Despite the horror stories about long lines and fierce questioning at this border crossing, we are sent onwards to Nicaragua with no questions and with only 15-20 minutes waiting time. It's a dusty 1km walk along the roadside to Nicaraguan immigration, and we share the walk with the feisty woman as well as a pair of Nicaraguan ladies carrying huge bags on their heads. We have to edge around a truck disinfection gate and dodge a few oncoming trucks – frankly, this border point could do with some reworking to accommodate buses and pedestrians, as it seems to be designed solely for the verrrrry slow processing of trucks!

Shortly before the immigration office the usual “helpful volunteer” (complete with official-looking immigration badge) scoops us up and insists on leading us into the border control office. At least it appears to be the right building – we remember the Thailand/Cambodia experience all too well and are on high alert at border crossings! We pay a mysterious $1 “tax” at a small window (attempts to argue about this are futile, and for $2 not really worth the energy), and then move to a new window where we pay $12 for a “tourist card” (which clearly states a value of $10 – hmm) and watch copious amounts of triplicate paperwork being completed on our behalf. Again, no questions – and on this side, no waiting – so we're soon on our way to find the bus. Fortunately for our helper there is only one door to the immigration area (must make for fun times when it's really busy, since it's not really wide enough to be both an entrance & an exit!) so it's easy to latch onto us again and try to provide some more assistance. This takes the form of trying to persuade us to take a taxi (emphatic no – they are about 5 times the price of a bus), then leading us to the gate where buses & taxis await and trying to hand us over to another “fixer”. Somewhere around here the conversation turns into a plea for a tip for his great help. Unfortunately for him, the answer is a flat no, and further pleading and whining does nothing to aid his cause. He heads off in search of a more generous traveller.

A Nicaraguan policewoman checks our paperwork at the gate & welcomes us to Nicaragua. She points us in the direction of the buses – we're pleased to see that these are brightly decorated school buses, which were conspicuously absent in Costa Rica. We wade through a swarm of eager taxi drivers (where we discover that offering $2 – the actual bus fare - for the taxi journey to San Jorge is a good way to scare them away) and try the first bus in the line, but he points us towards the second (empty) bus. We clamber aboard after confirming the fare is $1. It's a bit of a relief that all the buses we've taken today have allowed us to board with our backpacks...we didn't relish being separated from them around the border area as we hate that trick of someone grabbing your bag & insisting on becoming your (paid) porter.

Tipping for random, unrequested services
We're aware that some of the above (and undoubtedly many of our earlier posts) make us sound like cheap jerks – after all, we might not be rich but we have a lot more than most people in many of the countries we've visited, and what's a $1 here and there? But Lisa is pretty firm on tipping – basically, she'll only pay if the person has actually helped us to do something we couldn't have done on our own. Chris is much nicer (and also much more inclined to give money to homeless people in “normal” life) and quite a few of our “fixers” have picked up on this, so he's the one who tends to get asked – sometimes he says yes but not always, and at the moment he's still stinging from handing over $8 to a fixer in Puntarenas who took us to the hotel we were already on our way to (what can we say...the town was scary, and the guy was charming!). It's hard because some people are undoubtedly in genuine need, and don't have a lot of options for official employment, but also we don't appreciate being taken as cash cows simply because we're foreign. Especially now after so many months with no income (and no guarantee of finding jobs immediately in Canada) we have vowed to keep our costs to a minimum. And overall, it must be better to support charity or industry to ensure that the most needy people are the ones who are taken care of and/or that more genuine employment opportunities are created.
(Lisa has an analogy...it's rather like not feeding squirrels in the park. Lots of people do it because the squirrels are charming and have big pleading eyes. But in the end it's bad for them because they become dependent on handouts – what if there were no more visitors? It's better to support the park environment to ensure that they have a safe home with lots of natural food sources. But this proves to be hard enough to achieve in parks, so it's wishful thinking that we can extend the concept to people all over the world...)

Our bus drives around in a circle and stops again at pretty much the same place, where the driver hops off with some words about “leaving in 20 minutes”...at least, that's what we think he said! No problemo, we have a big ring of cinnamon bread that we bought in Liberia at PPK (= pan per kilo!) so we settle down on the bus to enjoy it. It's a good chance to people-watch as well, and we note a lot of similarities to Nepal – outdoor cooking on wood fires, little shacks set up as shops & restaurants, and people carrying a lot of strange packages on buses (our favourite is the guy who has at least 20 large bags of pink candy floss tied to a long pole). Slowly some other people filter aboard, occasionally accosted by roving salespeople who work the buses. There was one on our bus from Liberia who seemed to sell EVERYTHING, but the main guy here is selling some perfume/body spray, and his main marketing tactic is sticking the spray container directly under people's noses. From their reaction we don't expect him to get rich from this stuff!

Eventually the bus is about 2/3 full and we pull out towards Rivas. We make frequent pick-ups along the highway so it's not long before we're forced to put our backpacks on our laps to free up the seats next to us. At least we're both next to a window so we can enjoy the scenes of Lago Nicaragua and the small communities we pass through. We'd heard that baseball is very popular in Nicaragua and this is supported by the number of baseball diamonds we pass (as opposed to the ubiquitous soccer fields in Panama & Costa Rica). We even pass a couple of games in progress. There are also lots of wind turbines along the shore of the lake, and more being built from the looks of it. We wonder if this was controversial – does anyone think it disrupts the view of the lake and Isla Ometepe's twin volcanoes?

Lisa also spots a few crumbling mansions and notes that the layout of the land seems to reflect Nicaragua's history – i.e. there were a few rich people (Somoza's supporters) who owned grand houses & fincas, but the majority of people were effectively their slaves, living in tiny makeshift shacks around the edges of the properties. Now, the rich people are gone and the grand houses are reduced to shells, but the average person's home is still made of corrugated tin or haphazardly connected bricks, and consists of just one large room which is shared by everyone (including the chickens, the pigs & the dog). Again it reminds us of our time in Nepal, although we didn't see any ex-mansions there!

After an hour or so, we arrive at the market in Rivas. We're surprised that it's so huge...it seems like the whole town is comprised of market stalls & small shops. It's vibrant but also overwhelming – especially since the usual crowd of fixers greets our bus and tries to filter the foreigners towards their services. The one other backpacker we've spotted is herded on to a Granada-bound bus – too bad, as we were hoping that we could share a taxi with her to San Jorge (where we can catch a boat to Ometepe).

According to our guidebook it should cost about C10 to the pier (50 US cents each) but we're getting offers of $5, so we run away from the bus area in search of the parque central. We find a large and interesting-looking (but closed) church, but no park, and then realise that the best place to get a collectivo taxi is in the market center – argh. It's very sunny & hot so we're keen to be on our way, although we stop at a couple of “financerias” (your guess is as good as ours) and a bank to try & change our remaining colones. At the bank there is a security guard who won't let people enter with umbrellas, helmets or large bags – so Lisa waits outside with the backpacks and chats to a bicycle tuk-tuk driver (who offers to take us to the pier for $5, but is not too bothered when she says no – it would be a heavy load!). We soon learn that official financial institutions have no interest in colones so we change the rest in the market (money changers are everywhere, waving big sheafs of currency). We also find a collectivo who charges C15 per person so we climb in, and he plays some Christian music until we pick up another passenger ;-)

We arrive at the pier just after 2pm and try to figure out the boat schedules. There are small boats (lanchas) and ferries, but as far as we can see there is no collective schedule. An official-looking woman finally tells us that the next boat is a ferry which leaves at 2:30pm, and points us into the boleteria (ticket office). But we balk a little at the price of C70 & ask about the lanchas – the next one costs C45 but won't leave for over an hour. Chris decides that we should pay the extra so that we can arrive on the island sooner and perhaps catch the public bus to our destination, a finca on the south side of the island (far from the main towns, which are both in the north). We pay for the tickets, then for a “port tax” (C10...we wonder if these “taxes” will persist throughout our stay in Nicaragua), and finally are allowed to pass through the gate onto the pier. We see several people swimming in the lake, and even some horses taking a dip! It's neat to see how many people travel by horse or horse & cart in this area – surely more economical than a car.

The ferry is small but has enough seats for everyone, and surprisingly they're showing a movie , “Under Siege 2” – dubbed in Spanish, of course. We thought this was a short trip – you can see the island clearly from the pier! - but the movie makes us wonder if we are wrong...In the end, the journey is about 1.5 hours so we'll never know if Steven Seagal catches the bad guy!

When we arrive at the small dock in Moyogalpa, there are several fixers waiting to show us to hostels, tour companies, etc. We shun them for a while – although we grab a free island map from one woman – but soon realise that they are actually nice & helpful people. When we tell them we want to go to Finca Magdalena, they point us towards the local bus which is just about to leave (the last one of the day, lucky!). For the bargain price of C25 each, this bus proves to be a great tour of the island & a good introduction to local life. It picks up all sorts of people on their way home at the end of the day; calls at the other major town, Altagracia (which is actually tiny but has a cute park & outdoor market); and passes numerous locals travelling by foot, bicycle & horse. It's so nice that there aren't many scooters or motorcycles here, and we hope it stays that way rather than what we saw on the islands in Thailand. We are also happy to see that the road to the south of the island which is listed as “under construction” on most websites is actually almost finished – you can see the last piles of concrete road-building blocks stacked up around the town of Balgue, which is where the bus route ends and just 1km from our finca. Too bad that 1km is uphill all the way, as it's still hot at 5:30pm and we are tired & thirsty after our long day of travelling.

We are rewarded at the end of the walk though, as we reach one of the ex-grand houses which has been pieced back together by a co-op into an atmospheric hostel with a great view. We try to figure out the accommodation options which seem to be either a double ensuite room for $26 or two dorm beds for $3.50 each – of course, we opt for the latter especially when we see that it's a 3-bed dorm with no one else in it! In fact, we discover that there are only 5 other guests – a pair of German girls who are travelling with an Australian guy, and a German couple. We all meet over dinner – generous & deliciously fresh food which must have been grown by the co-op. The German couple climbed our local volcano earlier that day (and look exhausted), and the other group will climb it tomorrow – Chris thinks he might join them but Lisa is not keen. It sounds like a lot of hard work without anything particularly exciting or unusual to see!

After a round of cribbage and a splash of Costa Rican cream liqueur (Lisa's is immersed in some of the finca's delicious organic coffee), we race quickly through the (cold) shower and hop into bed. We're pleased that we've managed to rig up the mosquito net to cover both beds (we use the term loosely – they are actually folding camp cots) and thus we can avoid covering ourselves in DEET for a few hours at least! We fall asleep to the sounds of frogs, geckos and many other creatures of the night....